During the Regency, the Mayfair area was the most exclusive and fashionable residential district in the city of London. The majority of the wealthiest and most socially prominent members of society had town homes in that area. In addition, some of the most upscale shops were also located within the bounds of Mayfair during our favorite period. As with all real estate, the value of this area was all about location, location, location. And one of the most important aspects of that location was the prevailing winds which blew across the city.
The influence of the prevailing winds in London . . .
The section of London known as Mayfair was open fields and farmland until the last decades of the seventeenth century. It was to this area that an important spring fair, originally held in the Haymarket, was moved in the mid-1680s. This new location, still known today as Shepherd Market, was the site of this annual fair which took place during the first two weeks of May. This was not just an agricultural or livestock fair. All manner of food and other goods were on offer, as well as a wide range of entertainment, including jugglers, fencers, pugilists and puppet shows. The fair drew large crowds every day, with gambling and prostitution both available. Pick-pockets and cut-purses had a field day at the May Fair. It is not surprising that the fair had developed a rather rowdy reputation by the early eighteenth century. During the reign of George I, the May Fair was deemed to be a public scandal and nuisance. It was soon thereafter suppressed by royal proclamation.
By 1710, with the demise of the unsavory May Fair, the fields around Shepherd Market were ripe for development as London continued to grow and expand. Traditionally, commercial development in London tended to cluster to the east of the City and Westminster, the principal British financial center and the seat of national government. Much of the trade in the metropolis centered on the Thames River docks, down river, to the east, and the industrial activities which sprang up near this bustling shipping center. Though the commercial area of eastern London generated significant wealth, it also generated even more significant stench and smoke. Breweries, butchers, tanneries, chandlers, soap-makers and other trades produced foul and noisome smells. When combined with the smoke of coal fires used to provide heat and generate power in many workplaces, the atmosphere over the east of London was thick, vile and malodorous.
The tract of land which made up the area now known as Mayfair was the property of a wealthy London banker from at least the late seventeenth century. Upon his death, the property passed to his daughter, Mary Davies, who had married into the Grosvenor family. Her son, Sir Richard Grosvenor, initiated the first development on this tract of land in 1721. The buildings constructed for this development were all substantial houses and were set in a plan around an open area which formed a residential square. This new residential development was named Grosvenor Square and it was immediately popular with leading members of the aristocracy. Grosvenor Square continued to be popular during the Regency and remained one of the most fashionable residential squares in London for well over a century. Soon after that first square was built and inhabited, more and more residential streets and squares grew up around it, so that the entire tract of land known as Mayfair was fully developed by the turn of the nineteenth century.
There is no doubt that one of the things which made Mayfair a popular and fashionable residential area was its proximity to Hyde Park, to the west, and Buckingham House (also known as the Queen’s House), to the south. However, just as important, if not more so, was its location well west of the eastern side of London. East London was a conglomeration of docks, shipyards and industrial premises alongside dense and squalid slums which served as housing for the lower classes who worked in the area. All of which generated dark smoke and a foul stench. But the prevailing winds which blow across southern England flow principally from west to east. These prevailing winds tended to protect the western side of London from the worst of the stink and smoke which was nearly constant on the eastern side of the metropolis.
During the Regency, the town homes of Mayfair were heated with coal, which was the common fuel of London by that time. Therefore, there was always at least a little coal smoke in the air above the area during the colder months. Fortunately, even a mild breeze would blow most of that smoke away to the east, reducing the smoke hanging in the air over the homes of Mayfair to a minimum. Of course, when the winds were calm, the coal smoke would tend to hang over the area. However, it would eventually be blown away when the winds picked up again. When a thick fog rolled in over the city, Mayfair residents had to endure the same conditions as those to the east, though usually for a briefer period, since the prevailing winds would typically clear the city from west to east.
Like Mayfair, the grounds of Buckingham House, Green Park, Hyde Park, St. James’s Park and Regent’s Park were all kept fairly clear of the worst of the smog of London by the prevailing westerly winds. With the amount of coal smoke which was released into the air during Regency winters, when coal was the main fuel used for heating, these areas were seldom completely free of smoke. However, the air in those areas was typically much clearer than would be found east of the City and Westminster, where smoke and noxious fumes were produced in much higher volume. Thanks to the prevailing westerly winds across Britain, residential development would continue in western London. Marylebone grew up to the north of Mayfair, and later, the exclusive area of Belgravia was developed to the southwest. A number of villas were built upriver on the Thames to take advantage of the cleaner air, and the cleaner water which flowed in the Thames above the eastern side of London.
Dear Regency Authors, knowing about the prevailing westerly winds which blew over London might prove useful when setting a story in the metropolis. Because of those winds, the western side of the city tended to be less smoky and smelly than the eastern side. When the winds were blowing, all of greater London was not subject to the same atmospheric conditions, even during the same day. On a day with a brisk breeze, it might be bright and clear in Mayfair and Hyde Park, yet there could still be smog in the East End, or on the London docks. When a heavy fog rolled in over the metropolis, it would certainly reduce visibility across the entire area, initially. But the prevailing winds would typically clear the fog out of the western side of the city first. It should also be noted that the prevailing westerly winds meant that most storms which hit the metropolis came in from the west.